Hunting Rogue Access Points with the ESP8266

Cantennas outperform every consumer-grade Wi-Fi antenna I’ve had the bad luck of purchasing. Cantenna is a mashup of ‘can’ and ‘antenna’ creating the nickname for a directional waveguide antenna built from re-purposed steel cans. For anyone who has yet to build one, it makes an excellent afternoon project. Here are some build instructions and technical details. I went beyond that, and ended up catching a rogue WiFi access point in the process.

When I needed to extend the range of some ESP8266-based sensors, cantennas were right at the top of my list of things to try. It was easy enough to build one, attach it to a Wemos Mini D1 Pro, and call the job done… leaving me with plenty of time to over-engineer it, and I ended up down a bit of a rabbit hole.

The first thing I did was stop using cans. Canned goods are not only expensive in my corner of the world, but more importantly don’t lend themselves that well to making a standardized antenna in volume. I can also only eat so many beans! The latter reason alone is enough to consider an alternative design like a modular dish reflector.

Continue reading “Hunting Rogue Access Points with the ESP8266”

You Can Learn a Lot from a Dummy (Load)

If you work on RF circuits–even if you aren’t a ham radio operator–you ought to have a dummy load. A dummy load is a non-radiative “antenna” with known impedance that you can use to test your RF circuit without radiating. For radio work, you usually just need a 50-ohm resistor that is non-inductive (at least at the frequencies you are interested in) and that can dissipate the amount of power you’ll expect it to handle (at least for a short time). [VO1PWF] wanted a dummy load and built his own.
CantennaThe Cantenna (not the Pringle’s kind; see left) was a famous dummy load design when Heathkit was in business. It was a single carbon rod immersed in a paint can full transformer oil (which we now know was full of dangerous PCBs; and we don’t mean printed circuit boards). [VO1PWF’s] design is a little more practical, using some resistors in parallel (20 1K resistors), a plastic pipe housing, and mineral oil to keep it all cool.

The reason for the parallel resistors is to maximize the power handling capability. The resistors are 3W units, so the dummy load–in theory–can handle 60 watts. Often, high power resistors are wire wound and thus have a good bit of parasitic inductance that makes the dummy load reactive (not a good thing since that makes the load impedance vary by frequency). They do make non-inductive wire wound resistors, but these aren’t truly non-inductive. The wire winds in two different directions, so the inductance tends to cancel out. We wouldn’t trust them to be a pure resistance in a high-power dummy load design.

Continue reading “You Can Learn a Lot from a Dummy (Load)”

Building a Horn Antenna for Radar

So you’ve built yourself an awesome radar system but it’s not performing as well as you had hoped. You assume this may have something to do with the tin cans you are using for antennas. The obvious next step is to design and build a horn antenna spec’d to work for your radar system. [Henrik] did exactly this as a way to improve upon his frequency modulated continuous wave radar system.

To start out, [Henrik] designed the antenna using CST software, an electromagnetic simulation program intended for this type of work. His final design consists of a horn shape with a 100mm x 85mm aperture and a length of 90mm. The software simulation showed an expected gain of 14.4dB and a beam width of 35 degrees. His old cantennas only had about 6dB with a width of around 100 degrees.

The two-dimensional components of the antenna were all cut from sheet metal. These pieces were then welded together. [Henrik] admits that his precision may be off by as much as 2mm in some cases, which will affect the performance of the antenna. A sheet of metal was also placed between the two horns in order to reduce coupling between the antennas.

[Henrik] tested his new antenna in a local football field. He found that his real life antenna did not perform quite as well as the simulation. He was able to achieve about 10dB gain with a field width of 44 degrees. It’s still a vast improvement over the cantenna design.

If you haven’t given Radar a whirl yet, check out [Greg Charvat’s] words of encouragement and then dive right in!

Build a $360 synthetic aperture radar with MIT’s OpenCourseware

A few profs from MIT’s Lincoln Lab are giving those poor MIT undergrads something to do over winter break: they’re teaching a three-week course on building a laptop-powered radar system capable of radar ranging, doppler, and synthetic aperture imaging. Interestingly, the radar system that teams will build for the class has a BOM totaling $360, and they’re also putting the entire class online if you’d like to follow along and build your own.

From the lecture notes from the course, the radio system is made out of an off-the-shelf  LNA, oscillator, and  splitter. By connecting two coffee can ‘cantennas’, it’s possible to record a .WAV file from the signal coming from the radar and use MATLAB to turn that audio signal into a doppler radar.

It’s a very ambitious project that goes deep down the rabbit hole of RF and analog design. One of the lecturers made a YouTube demo of the radar in ranging mode; you can check that out after the break.

Continue reading “Build a $360 synthetic aperture radar with MIT’s OpenCourseware”

Build your own radar system

How we missed this one is anybody’s guess, but one of the presentations at DEFCON last year covers a DIY radar build. [Michael Scarito] talks about the concepts behind radar, and then goes on to show that it’s not too hard or expensive to build a setup of your own. We’ve embedded his 45 minute talk after the break.

The two large pieces of hardware above should look familiar. They’re descendents of a favorite hacking project, the cantenna. The can-based long-range antenna is most popular with WiFi applications, but we’ve seen it used for Bluetooth as well and it’s not surprising to see it here. The rest is a lot of sensing hardware and enough math crammed into the coding to make your ears droop.

If you make it far enough (exactly 39 minutes into the talk) [Michael] shares some links for more information on the build. We think living vicariously is enough for us, but if you manage to build your own setup don’t forget to post a project log!

Continue reading “Build your own radar system”

Tactical Wifi Cantenna Needs Picatinny Rails

[Wes] built a cool looking Tactical Wifi Cantenna with some parts from a broken airsoft pistol. The antenna is a cookie can type with an added cone to increase performance, as seen in this tutorial. Once the antenna was built it was time to add some kind of handle, [Wes] just so happened to have such a thing on hand. After epoxy puddying the pistol’s grip to his cookie cantenna he observed that the magazine lock was still functioning. Quick thinking and the application of a  hammer in nut allows the whole rig to quickly attach to the tripod. The antenna also sports a plastic lid and textured paint finish for that ultimate tactical look and feel. A USB Alpha AWUSO36H Wifi dongle even mounts on the back of the rig. We wouldn’t go around outside pointing this at stuff attaching and detaching the tripod but the finish looks great, nicely done!

Check out some other various types of cantennas, even a rifle version if you crave more wifi goodness.

PCB trace antenna

If you’re working on a device that includes RF wireless, [Colin’s] Guide to PCB Trace Antenna Design might clear some headaches when sending off for PCBs. While it is directed at devices transmitting at 2.4GHz, the techniques and recommended equipment (read: espresso smith charts and network analyzers) should work for almost any frequency. While trace antennas aren’t as easy to implement as a measured wire, the space benefits make up for the difficulty. Unless you don’t mind how larger your project is, did someone say cantenna?